No lurch to the left

The Tories would be unwise to believe their own spin about Jon Cruddas's appointment to head Labour'

It was hardly a shuffle, more like a shimmy. Ed Miliband has made some changes to his top team in response to the departure of Peter Hain from the office of shadow Secretary of State for Wales. His replacement is Owen Smith, a generally well-rated MP from the 2010 intake who seems to have made a wide range of friends and few enemies in his short time in parliament.

But the move that has generated the most attention is the handing of responsibility for the party’s policy review to Jon Cruddas. The Dagenham MP has a high profile in the party and has been pestered by various people to take a front line ever since his unsuccessful but much admired (in Labour circles; unnoticed anywhere else) campaign for the deputy leadership in 2007.

The appointment has been vacuously branded by Conservatives a “lurch to the left”. This is presumably a half-hearted attempt to re-animate the spectre of “Red Ed” as a kind of default jibe in the absence of more imaginative ways to insult the Labour leader. Anyone who knows Cruddas, has followed his career or listened to his arguments will know he is plainly not a reactionary big state union-hugging lefty from central casting. He was an advisor to Tony Blair and a supporter of David Miliband’s leadership bid in 2010. He was a critic of big state models of welfare spending as ineffective in dealing with stubborn social problems back in the days when budget constraints were not even part of the discussion.

He has dedicated considerable thought to an acute dilemma in modern British politics: how to address the insecurity, disorientation and disempowerment that many feel in response to globalised economic forces without indulging in illiberal strains of protectionism and atavistic nationalism. One criticism sometimes heard of Cruddas is that he is long on elegant analysis of a problem, short on solution.

By contrast, that allegation is never made against Lord Andrew Adonis, Gordon Brown’s transport secretary and architect of the Academy Schools programme under Tony Blair. He has been recruited to feed thoughts on industrial strategy into the policy review. That is being interpreted in some quarters as a symbolic hire to indicate that Blairish ideas are tolerated in Miliband’s Labour party. There was certainly appetite for such a gesture since Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary who has been kicked off the policy review, is considered a fanatical Blairite by the kind of people who still care about such labels. (That is, most of the media and a large but diminishing section of the parliamentary Labour party.)

If Adonis is going to be empowered to take serious decisions about the direction of Labour policy on reforming the economy, infrastructure and strategic investment, he and Cruddas will make a formidable pairing. Indeed, it is hard to believe that the Tories seriously believe their own spin about a sudden surge of Trotskyism at the Labour top table. Surely they are not so crude in their analysis or so ignorant of Labour thinking. Miliband must be hoping they are and that his enemies, not for the first time, are busy underestimating him.

Update: In Prime Minister's Questions today David Cameron used the appointment of Jon Cruddas as a device to attack Ed Miliband for apparent cosiness with trade unions and for revealing his supposedly sinister leftist impulses. It was a desperate lunge suggesting that the Tories do indeed know nothing about Cruddas other than what they must have hastily found on Wikipedia this morning. If they want a more nuanced view they should start with Gaby Hinsliff's profile for the Guardian here and, of course, some of the pieces he has written for the Statesman here.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.